“VOW AND MOUTH DISEASE”
APRIL 29, 2012
For those who weren’t here last Sunday, let me bring you up to speed. For those who were here, let me quickly review. Last Sunday we looked at the next major Judge in our series, a man named Jephthah.
After being sent packing by his half-brothers, our hero, Jephthah, the son of a philandering father and a prostitute, settled in the land of Tob. Think of it as an ancient “South Dakotan Badlands,” and while there Jephthah not only survived but he thrived, and before long, he had gathered a group of men around him. One version of the Bible calls them "worthless fellows." Our version calls them "outlaws," and what they became, over time, was a crackerjack band of raiders, possibly soldiers of fortune.
All this provided the occasion for one of life's ironic twists. Suddenly Israel found itself at war with a neighboring nation ... the Ammonites. And the soldiers of Israel were faring poorly, because they lacked a courageous and charismatic leader. So the people of Gilead sent a delegation to Jephthah saying: "Bring your group of merry men and lead our forces." Upon hearing this, Jephthah reminded them that they had once booted him out of town, but this wasn't the first time in biblical history that the kicked-out brother became the sought-out brother. Remember the story of Joseph and his technicolor dream coat?
So with all the face cards suddenly in his hand, Jephthah struck a deal. Yes, he would join them. Yes, he would lead them. But, in the event that he should be successful, he expected to be made "head over the people." Which they accepted. After all, what else could they do?
Well, Jephthah also attempted to strike a deal with the Ammonites. He arranged a series of conferences with the Ammonites in an attempt to settle things amicably. But when negotiations broke down he had no choice but to do battle. As his troops sharpened their swords and put on their combat boots, Jephthah slipped away to strike another deal, this time with God, saying: "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever is the first to come out of my door when I return victorious that one shall be offered up by me as a burnt offering."
All this raises a couple of questions. First, what was Jephthah thinking? Maybe he figured he'd lose. Or, in the event of a victory, maybe he figured his dog would be the first through the door. Or his servant. Which, of course, wasn't what happened.
But that raises an even larger question. Why would Jephthah offer human sacrifice as a part of his vow to God? God would not have approved of the offer. This may have been a popular practice of some of the other religions in the Land of Tob, but not to the God of Israel. So why would Jephthah offer human sacrifice as part of the deal? That doesn’t make sense.
And as a quick aside, the History Channel had a program that ran from 1994 to 2006 called History’s Mysteries. It investigated such mysteries as death of Marilyn Monroe and the mysteries of King Tut. This episode from Judges could have made for a good episode on that program. Judges 11 is a mystery. It’s one of the most debated portions of Scripture in the Bible. There are two opinions on Jephthah’s vow. The first one is that he did not sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering because God would not accept it. Instead she had to remain a perpetual virgin for her entire life. The second is that he did carry through on his vow to the Lord, and we will say more about this later.
Anyway, after his victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah headed home and the first person out the door (rushing to greet him with timbrels and dance) was not his dog, but his daughter ... his beautiful daughter ... his adoring daughter ... his virginal daughter ... his only daughter ... who more than anybody else was the one person who possessed the capacity to "light up his life." And as she ran from the door to her daddy, it was as if the heavens fell. Whereupon Jephthah tore off his clothes, fell to his knees, and wept. Alas, my daughter, you have brought me very low. You have become the cause of a great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord and I cannot take back my vow.
And he didn't take back his vow, and God did not intervene as God had done with Abraham and Isaac. No, the text indicates that he burned her up.
That's not a very pretty story. My wife Trudy would not like it. Trudy likes stories with happy endings. Most of us do. This does not end happily. Although I suppose that here and there, in some of the darker corners of Christendom, Jephthah's faithful follow-through is preached in laudatory prose. After all, the man kept his vow. But I would never say that. Neither would I offer it. So how shall we treat this story?
Well, first, we could start with a historical word about child sacrifice. Which Israel abhorred, but also occasionally practiced. If you decide to go to Israel with us in November we’ll take you to a place just south of the Jerusalem city wall, called the Valley of Hinnom, a valley referenced by the prophet Jeremiah. Turn with me to his words. Turn with me to Jeremiah 7:30 on page 618 of your pew bible.
For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and daughters in the fire - which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.
And while we don't know much about this altar ... or much about this practice ... it was sufficiently troubling in Jeremiah's time, so as to occasion his offering four additional diatribes against the abominations performed there. And Jeremiah was not alone, given that similar prohibitions against child sacrifice can be found in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, II Kings, Psalms and Ezekiel. So why would all those people write about it, if somebody wasn't doing it?
Actually, this was a common practice ... not to the Jews, but to their neighbors, which illustrates that sometimes we borrow from our neighbors much more than a cup of sugar or a set of socket wrenches. We also borrow some very screwy ideas, including, from to time, some very screwy religious ideas. Someone once said that stupidity is more often copied than countered. Which explains a lot of things both then and now.
Then, second, after talking about child sacrifice back then, we could fast-forward the discussion from child sacrifice then to child sacrifice now. That’s what many in the pro-life camp believe abortion happens to be - a modern day form of child sacrifice. I’m not going to get into that from the pulpit because such topics are better suited for a Sunday School class and not the pulpit. I’m just pointing out how pro-lifers often see abortion.
And clearly not even close to the same level, but what about parents who sacrifice their children in order to build their own egos? What’s that current show on TV called? Is it Toddlers and Tiara’s? What are those parents thinking?
And what about all the dads, and now moms, who pursue lesser things at the expense of greater things? If part of Jephthah's story is that of a man who sacrificed a great love in order to win a great victory, which of us has not seen it, heard it, or perhaps even done it? Maybe we haven't been so crude as to bring God into the mix (as in saying: "You give me this, God, and I'll give you that"), but we have pursued after things while losing other things that should have been more important. I have known lots of people who came home in triumph, but there wasn't anybody to meet them when they got there ... given that they arrived much too late at night, or much too late in the relationship. They got their victory. They got the corner office. They got the big account. But at what cost, at what sacrifice?
We could go on, but to what end? The point's made. The pain's felt.
So let's try a third tack. Let’s move away from child sacrifice and move on to bargaining with God. Jephthah said, “ Let’s make a deal. If you give me a victory, I will give you the first thing out my door.”
I venture to say that all of us have bargained with God at one time or another. Often, bargaining is the very first serious conversation we have with the Almighty. We are in the third grade. We have not studied the multiplication tables at all and Mrs. Anderson throws a pop quiz at us. We pray, “God, if you help me with this quiz, I promise to be nice to my sister all week.”
We continue bargaining with God into adulthood. “God, get me out of this situation and I’ll the Bible more and I will begin to tithe. I will give ten percent of what I earn to you.”
Is it OK to bargain with God? I do not mean asking God for something; we do that all the time in prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked his Heavenly Father to take the cup he was about to drink from him, but he did not offer to exchange something in return.
Is it OK to bargain with God? No, it is not. God cannot be bribed, bought or bound. Neither do we set the parameters of a deal. When one looks in the Bible at the covenants God makes with his people, it is God who sets the terms of the covenants and they are non-negotiable. God says, "This is what I will do for you; here is what you will do." There is no bargaining here. What God has promised is not in doubt and what we are to do is not in doubt. Whether or not we do it is another matter, but there is no bargaining ... only God's promises and stipulations, and our obedience.
And one more thing. Throughout this episode, through the vow, through the victory in battle, through the return home, and the follow through on the vow that leads to the death of his only daughter, all we get from the Almighty is a deafening, damning divine silence. Nowhere do we hear God accept the vow or take pleasure in it.
But there's a fourth and final place I want to go with this, and that begins with the question: "Are we always doomed by the choices we make or by the circumstances of the situation in which we live?" As I read the commentaries on this passage, I was struck by how many people saw Jephthah as a tragic figure. After all, he had a hooker for a mother, a philanderer for a father, a bunch of money grubbers for brothers, driven from the house, living on the run, surviving by fighting ... a tragic son who became a tragic father ... doomed by a script he did not write ... locked into a deal he could not break.
Except it didn't have to end that way. God didn't want his deal. God didn't want his daughter. God didn't want to see him broken. God didn't want to see her burned. God didn't derive one ounce of pleasure from his predicament.
One of the hardest things to do as Christians is convincing people who feel themselves to be in the pit, that God did not put them there ... that God does not want them there ... and that God, through his Son, Jesus Christ, could help them climb from there. Life is redeemable. How it was is not necessarily how it has to continue being. Cycles can be broken. Addictions can be beaten. Scripts can be rewritten.
Have you seen the bumper sticker STUFF HAPPENS? That’s the sanitized version of it, but have you seen it? STUFF HAPPENS? Well, ext to every bumper sticker that reads STUFF HAPPENS should be another bumper sticker that reads: GRACE HAPPENS. Because it does. every bit as much, and every bit as often as “stuff happens.” Which is why they call it "amazing." God has made a commitment to our stories and our struggles. God can factor himself into the chemistry of our lives in ways that can make bitter waters sweet and sour spirits sing, and every time life sucks, God can breathe hope into our lungs. Resurrections happen on both sides of the grave.
I wish I could have told Jephthah that. Even more, I wish that I could tell you that.
 Much of this message inspired by William Ritter’s sermon “It Doesn’t Have to be This Way”